For Toronto immigrants, Raptors’ rise to NBA Finals is personal

When Nav Bhatia, a Sikh who emigrated to Canada from India, first started appearing at Toronto Raptors games, he says fellow fans assumed he was a cab driver dropping other fans off.

But that was in 1995, when the NBA expanded northward into Canada. Mr. Bhatia bought two season tickets that first year, the most he could afford as a car salesman. Twenty-four years later, Mr. Bhatia, who color-coordinates his turban with his Raptors jersey, is today recognized as Canada’s most fervent basketball supporter.

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This week, as the Canadian team faces off against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals – the first time Canada has made it this far – Mr. Bhatia will be standing (or more likely waving and wildly cheering) not just as the team’s constant courtside champion, but as a reflection of Toronto and its multicultural ethos. Even his immigration story follows a similar arc to that of the Raptors. With persistence and resilience the team has earned basketball a place in a city that was, when the Raptors arrived on the scene here, decidedly a hockey town.

“I knew one day that we would make it,” says Mr. Bhatia, who has never missed a home game. On this evening, fans, the vast majority immigrants and minorities, line up for a photo with him before tipoff in Saturday’s historic Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks. “I have been waiting for 24 years; today is a very special time for us.”

The team itself is celebrated for its own diversity, starting at the top with Masai Ujiri, the team’s widely respected president from Nigeria. There is player Pascal Siakam of Cameroon or Serge Ibaka, born in the Republic of Congo. And one might argue that as the lone NBA team from Canada, the vast majority of the players come from somewhere else – specifically south of the border – like Raptors star players Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles) and Kyle Lowry (Philadelphia).

Yet it’s the team’s fanbase, outside or inside the Scotiabank Arena, that illustrates the diversity of Toronto, where 51.5 percent of residents identified as a “visible minority” in the latest census – women like Claudette Gardiner, born in Jamaica, who is at the playoff game with her Canadian-born daughter Micaela Evans and who talks about the team’s plucky rise in Toronto.

Even though it was a Canadian, James Naismith, who invented basketball, some of the customs of the game were unfamiliar here in 1995. One of the first players, Tracy Murray, mused to the CBC that fans inadvertently waved their thunder sticks when the Raptors were at the free throw line, distracting instead of supporting them.

They have come a long way since. “We never give up. We are such optimists,” says Ms. Gardiner. She is talking about the Raptors, but she could be easily talking about her own story.

There is Wasantha Abeywardena, who was born in Sri Lanka and has brought his 13-year-old son to the game. He echoes a similar sentiment, admiring above all the team’s grit. “They’ve been trying really hard,” he says.

And there is Andy Xu, who emigrated to Canada eight years ago. He was born in China and says he is a fan of Jeremy Lin, the first American of Chinese or Taiwanese descent to play in the NBA. But he adds the real appeal is feeling welcome in this arena – and in Canada. “Everyone is accepted. I feel so comfortable,” says Mr. Xu, who is studying mathematical physics.

“We the North,” the crowd chants, louder and louder, as the Raptors clinched the victory to go to the finals.

Marvin Ryder, who analyzes sports marketing as a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, expects the basketball buzz to grow, at least in urban centers. Canada’s newcomers gravitate to basketball and soccer, which are more accessible than ice hockey. This season the Raptors have given Canada a chance at a badly desired championship. As television crews pan the arena, he says, it shows the pulsing metropolis that is today Toronto and that many outsiders (specifically Americans, he says) haven’t understood. “It is a great way to showcase that Toronto is truly a city of the 21st century,” Professor Ryder says.

It was not always that way, as Mr. Bhatia can attest. When he first arrived, as a trained mechanical engineer, he couldn’t get a job in his field. Instead, he worked as a car salesman. He says at that time he was called far worse than a cab driver. “I never get upset; I do something positive to take away the negativity,” he says. For him that meant inviting underprivileged kids from all different religious and racial backgrounds to games, something he could afford as his own career grew from salesman to manager to successful car dealership owner today. “That is why today you will see here my community,” he says. “I use the game of basketball to bring the world together.”

Amrit Tiwana, a physiotherapist who is also a Sikh, lines up for a photo with Mr. Bhatia. “An immigrant has risen to be an ambassador of the Raptors,” says Mr. Tiwana. “It shows that Toronto is all about diversity, a city where it doesn’t matter where you come from.”

And now is the time to come together and celebrate it, he says, finally. “We’ve waited for this moment our whole lives.”

Read this story at csmonitor.com

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